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Creative people more dishonest, Harvard study finds

Bernie Madoff has been dubbed “the wizard of lies” in a best-selling book and vilified for what some refer to as his “creative bookkeeping” that covered up a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme. In fact, financial swindlers and rip-off artists often rely on their ingenuity. But are creative types more likely to lie, cheat, and steal?

“There’s been a lot of anecdotal evidence linking creativity with dishonesty, but without much empirical evidence,” said Francesca Gino, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. She decided to conduct a series of experiments with several hundred college students to determine whether creativity and intelligence play a role in lowering ethical standards when it comes to making money. The findings were published in the recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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In each experiment, participants who scored high on a creativity questionnaire were more likely to fudge their results on various tasks in order to earn more money. (Those who scored high for intelligence but not creativity weren’t any more likely to lie than those who scored lower for intelligence.)

For instance, in an experiment that involved solving math problems, 49 percent of creative folks overstated their performance to earn a few extra dollars compared with 27 percent of non-creative types. In another experiment, where participants were compensated more for higher numbers on a die roll, those with high creativity scores had higher self-reported scores than those with low creativity.

“When you’re a creative person, you can use that creativity to come up with reasons for why unethical behaviors may be okay,” said Gino. “Crossing ethical boundaries may not be as problematic.”

Interestingly, all of the study participants wanted to maintain a positive view of themselves: In anonymous surveys, nobody admitted being a cheater, and all considered cheating to be wrong. But when faced with ethical dilemmas where they weighed self-interest against the desire to maintain their high self-image, the creative participants were better able to rationalize their dishonest behavior, so they could still see themselves as honest human beings.

They figure what’s the harm in cheating, just a little? “One might reason that other people would cheat under the same circumstances or that a little cheating will not hurt anyone,” wrote Gino in the paper.

Other research suggests we all start to self-rationalize more when we’re in a creative mindset -- looking for ways to lower our tax bill, for example, or coming up with a new idea for an advertising campaign. “Anyone who’s thinking creatively at [the] moment, may be more likely to engage in unethical behavior,” Gino told me.

Of course, we shouldn’t try to avoid being creative, but we may want to be a little more self-aware. “Knowing that creativity can have this side effect,” Gino said, “should make us stop and think more carefully when we’re faced with an ethical decision.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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